Less than a week after his star-making sermon at the British royal wedding, Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry set his sights on American politics, leading a church service to lament what he and other Christian leaders call “a dangerous crisis of moral and political leadership.”
“It’s like somebody woke up Jim Crow,” Curry told CNN in an interview before the Thursday evening service, “and said let’s not just segregate Americans over race, let’s separate people along religious and political and class lines, too.”
Thursday’s service, a candlelight vigil that followed at the White House and a declaration by Christian leaders are intended to dig beneath those divisions and remind Christians of Jesus’ core values, Curry said.
“To help Christian people, people of goodwill, to find their voice, to reclaim and renew the faith that Jesus has given us, and to find a way to live that faith both in our personal lives and in the public square.”
The bishop insisted his activism is non-partisan, declining to criticize President Donald Trump by name. “We are not here to point fingers,” he said before the service, “we are here to lend a helping hand.”
Likewise, the Rev. Jim Wallis, a veteran evangelical activist and key organizer of the “Reclaiming Jesus” movement behind Thursday’s event, insisted that Jesus, not Trump, was the group’s central focus.
Still Curry and the other Christian leaders at Thursday’s service are clearly unhappy with the political status quo, particularly what they see as the rise in white nationalism, sexism and political language that “debases” the “most vulnerable children of God,” including immigrants and refugees.
Thursday night’s events had been planned long before last Saturday, when the world tuned in to see a royal wedding ceremony and heard an American bishop preach about the power of Christian love to create “a new world, a new human family.”
Since his impassioned sermon, Curry has been an almost inescapable presence on television, making the rounds from green room to green room. As Thursday evening’s church service made clear, however, Curry’s true home is in the pulpit.
A half-hour before the service started, National City Christian Church was packed to capacity, with people filling the aisles and fanning themselves with programs in the early evening heat.
Wearing his purple bishop’s vestments, Curry earned a standing ovation before he even spoke a word.
“Love your neighbor,” Curry preached, his voice rising with emotion. “Love the neighbor you like and the neighbor you don’t like. Love the neighbor you agree with and the neighbor you don’t agree with. Love your Democrat neighbor, your Republican neighbor, your black neighbor, your white neighbor, your Anglo neighbor, your Latino neighbor and your LGBTQ neighbor. Love your neighbor! That’s why we’re here!”
Out of the wilderness
While Curry and other religious progressives are quick to reject political partisanship, it’s hard not to see Thursday’s events as part of a resurgent “religious left,” a movement that has spent years, if not decades, in the political wilderness.
In recent months, progressive activists have resurrected the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Poor People’s Campaign,” opened their homes and churches to undocumented immigrants seeking sanctuary, lobbied Congress to protect DACA recipients and fiercely protested what they see as a rise in white nationalism and dishonesty in politics.
Curry himself is no stranger to political struggles. As a bishop in North Carolina, he supported the Moral Mondays campaign, which included statehouse protests against inequality. At a rally in 2014, for example, he called for teachers to receive higher salaries and labeled education a divine right.
He has also been a vocal backer of LGBT rights, in his own Episcopal Church and in society at large. Last October, he joined other religious leaders in filing an amicus brief with the Supreme Court opposing a Christian cake maker who refused to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding. That case will be decided later this year.
At Thursday’s events, Curry was joined by a number of other prominent progressive Christian leaders, including the Rev. Sharon Watkins, former general minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); the Rev. James Forbes, former pastor of New York’s Riverside Church; and Friar Richard Rohr, a Catholic Franciscan.
All preached to the packed National City Christian Church, earning loud applause for sharply denouncing the political status quo.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the events.
The Rev. Johnnie Moore, a member of Trump’s informal council of evangelical advisers, said: “My personal prayer is that all this politicization – on the left and the right – would give way to a spirit committed to problem solving for the common good, despite our disagreements, and I’m actually hopeful this week we are getting closer to that reality.”
Moore was referring to a prison reform bill passed by the House of Representatives on Tuesday that he and other evangelicals have championed.
What’s at stake
Thursday’s events are designed to draw attention to a sharply worded statement issued by 23 prominent Christian leaders, some of whom once led denominations or large religious organizations.
In addition to Curry, the diverse list includes a Franciscan friar, former advisers to President Obama’s faith-based office and Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, the first female bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
The statement, called “Reclaiming Jesus,” is framed as a “confession” in the spiritual sense of the word: a public statement of principles, not an admission of guilt.
In its 2,321 words, the statement never mentions Trump by name, but its aim is clear: to urge Christians who have aligned with the administration to reconsider their political alliances.
“We believe two things are at stake: the soul of the nation, and the integrity of faith,” the statement reads. “It is time to be followers of Jesus before anything else – nationality, political party, race, ethnicity, gender, geography – our identity in Christ precedes every other identity.”
It outlines six statements of Christian belief, citing the Bible as evidence, as well as political stances informed by those beliefs.
The first, for example, states that all humans are made in the image and likeness of God, a tenet that should inspire Christians to reject “the resurgence of white nationalism and racism in our nation on many fronts, including the highest levels of political leadership,” the Christian leaders said.
“Reclaiming Jesus” also strongly denounces “America first,” a foreign policy slogan employed by Trump, as “theological heresy.” The religious leaders also condemn “the growing attacks on immigrants and refugees, who are being made into cultural and political targets” and “the practice and pattern of lying that is invading our political and civil life.”
“The normalization of lying presents a profound moral danger to the fabric of society.”
Finally, the statement warns of “any moves toward autocratic political leadership and authoritarian rule.”
“We believe authoritarian political leadership is a theological danger that threatens democracy and the common good – and we will resist it.”